Knitting and the Planet

A question given at Uni the week was this:

How can textile ecology impact on your specialism?

My specialism being knit, although I like to believe it’s spinning, How can how I knit or make yarn impact on the planet?

All the way home and much of today I’ve been thinking. Is it possible to produce a knitted item without impacting on the environment?

University doesn’t seem to give me time to really explore the questions it raises, I don’t have the time to create a large item, but perhaps a hat or a pair of gloves.

A basic knitted hat, bought in a high street store would set you back £5-£20 depending on the quality and materials used, but the processes that hat goes through to be made has a high impact on the planet.

Cheaper items are rarely 100% pure wool, most often acrylic, so not only do we have the cost of producing the wool but also the costs of chemically producing the acrylic.

The process to make the yarn goes through similar steps as it would hand spinning wool, just a faster process.

Electric trimmers to shear the sheep, if the wool is British it might be shipped to China or India to be processed and made then shipped back to the UK to be sold. The wool would need sorting, washing, carding prior to being spun and plyed. If the yarn is dyed (most likely) it will be dyed using chemical dyes which again effect the environment and in severe cases contaminate the water. The hat is designed and knitted on machines, hand finished, labels attached, sealed in a plastic bag perhaps then boxed to be shipped to the UK.

The process could be improved by using British wool and a UK factory to prepare the fiber instead of shipping it abroad. I could be knitted in the UK and packaging could be improved.

My question is though, could the whole process be done without machines, waste water, chemicals and even travel costs?

1. Sheep – Could I have sheep? Well, not really. My little council flat has a nice garden but it they ask enough questions just to have a cat. I can just see their faces if I ask if I can have some sheep in the garden. An alternative is to buy the fleece straight from a farmer. Although most British fleeces go to the British Wool board there are still farmers that see fleece as a waste product. Many of these fleeces though are mixed breeds and the quality of the wool might not be suitable for clothing.

There are some good fleeces oout there and Ebay have a regular supply of sheep owners who have a small collection of pure bred sheep. As much as I moan about British alpaca I admit I have an alpaca fleece. I bought it for £5, it’s nice quality, clean, hand sheared on a farm in South Yorkshire and sold to a woman who decided she would dye the fleece and make a lot of money. Realising how time consuming this all was she gave up and I bought it to save it from being put in the bin.

Well I have my fleece, £5 spent and a 1 hour car trip to collect it.

2. Shearing – The fleece I have was hand sheared with hand clippers, no electricity used. This is an old way of shearing and rarely used. I don’t know how I feel about hand shearing, using electric clippers is a smoother way of shearing and I think the sheep appreciates it. For that reason I think I will forgive any sheep shearers that use electric.

3. Skirting – Ideally this is done outdoors. It’s where you open up the fleece and seperate the sections. It also lets you pick out some of the larger bits of waste from the fleece. The neck and belly is often softer and used for finer products, back used for rougher projects, but this all depends on the breed.

I would do this by hand on the floor or table if big enough and with a bin liner for a base to clean up the left overs. Fleece I don’t want to use can be left for bird nests and given back to nature.

4. Washing – You can wash a fleece in a top loading washing machine, but most UK machines are front loading. Hand washing can be done with hot and cold water and a little detergent. In “Three Bags Full” (1) Judith MacKenzie describes a process from New Zealand where hot water resources were scarce. Fleece was fermented in cold water. This technique uses the natural soap (Suint) found in the fleece and cold water. No chemicals or hot water needed and even better, the water is kept to use for several months. On a down side the process is very smelly, so I would need to do it in a garden and since my garden isn’t fenced in and the fleece is left for several days I might find someone has kicked over the bucket of fleece and I lose the whole project. This might be where my parents garden comes in handy. The great news is that rain water works best for fermenting.

5. Carding/Combing – Any day now I have a pair of beautiful English combs arriving through the post so I can make my own tops (not particularly relevent to tell you that, but I’m excited). There are people who claim the mechanical process of carding wool damages the fiber. Norman Kennedy, in “From Wool to Waulking” (2) suggests the heat and stress put on fiber from modern mechanical machines weakens and breaks the fibers making the yarn weaker than hand carded fiber. This is something I would like to look at.

I have both a drum carder and hand carders and could hand card the wool, once I get my combs I can also produce worsted as well as woollen yarn. It’s a time consuming process, and the drum carder makes it a quicker process but it doesn’t use electricity.

6. Dyeing – I like chemical dyes, but for this process I want to find a natural dye that is environmentally friendly. Many mordants give off toxins that are harmful, but the natural dyeing process can be used without mordants. There are also plants/vegetables like rhubarb that act as both a dye and a mordant. Even with natural dyeing the water has to be heated and simmered.

Solar dyeing on the other hand uses cold water and the heat of the sun to dye wool. Mother Earth News has some easy step by step instructions on dyeing this way.

7. Spinning – Very much the easy part. Do I spin worsted, woollen or semi-worsted? long draw, short draw? Do I ply it as a double, a nice round three ply or cable it?  Am I wanting thin yarn for a shawl or thick? What about art yarn (although isn’t all handspun yarn an art form?) Boucle? Thick and thin?

These are the easy questions.

8. Finishing – Final washing of the yarn, can I avoid using hot water? perhaps I could try solar washing like the dyeing process. I could try brushing the yarn.

9. Knitting – Of course hand knitting will be the way to knit the hat. A plain hat or a bit of cableing to show off the yarn? How about a button made from a slice of found tree branch?

10. Labeling – What kind of label would suit an item made in this way? No plastic bags, or colour printing. What about a simple brown label tied with string?

What I thought was going to be a diffiuclt if not impossible process actually could work. With the right resources (outdoor space) and equipment that I already have on hand I think I could actually produce an item using no chemicals, electrical equiptment or waste.

The question is though, would this work?

I’m estimating, all in all this is one months worth of work. Fermenting and dyeing are slow week long projects, but the other processes are time consuming – very slow. If at the end of it I was offered £20 for a hat I think I’d be a bit miffed. The price would be higher than normal, but the story behind the hat…Wow. Would people pay for that?

(1) Three bags full by Judith MacKenzie –

(2) From Wool to Waulking by Norman Kennedy –


See also:

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

7 thoughts on “Knitting and the Planet

  1. I like the ideas you present, especially the low impact and higher quality finished product. I do hand spin (and sell) yarn and felted hats but tend to source most of my wool as locally produced top and do use chemical dyes (but tend to exhaust the dye bath before disposal) When washing a fleece, the bath water is a welcome nutrient addition to the garden:)


    1. It’s be lovely if we all could produce our own naturally sourced wool, but time, space and cost does have to come into it.
      As long as we do what we can, we can’t really ask for more.
      I’d love to have my wool drying out the back in the fresh air, but in all honesty my neighbours would throw a fit!


    1. Kool aid is available in the UK and sold as a dye product but I wanted something that used a minimum amount of chemicals, electricity and water. Both food colouring and Kool aid require heating water, which means electricity. There’s also the problem of disposal, the thought of pouring the coloured liquid down the drain after use. But thanks for the suggestion, probably safer than some of the chemical dyes.


      1. There’s no problem with disposal with kool aid that’s why I suggested it…all the dye leaves the liquid and goes into the yarn, the liquid is left clear (usually – couple of flavours got cloudy).


      2. Sorry for the delay in responding, yes, Kool aid makes a good safe dye. I heard about someone also using boiled sweets, but will have to look further into that one.


      3. I recently managed to dye some wool fibre with a can of fizzy pop. Do you know why people seem to recommend using sugar free? The can of pop I used had sugar in and seemed to work ok.


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